Heroes and Homilies (2)

(This second section is where the homiletic theme appears in relation to Henryson. Parts of this draw on a review of Heaney’s Henryson, reproduced elsewhere on this blog, that I did for The Scottish Review of Books. But, as I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s been totally transformed in this new context. Except for the bits that are the same.)


The exemplary hero in this contemporary quest is Seamus Heaney, who in three key texts epitomises different aspects of the impulse to adapt, and the complex gesture of what I’m calling diachronic translation. In Beowulf, Sweeney Astray, and in The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables by Robert Henryson, we see three takes on this phenomenon. And, as we know, in stories, everything should always come in threes. I’ll briefly outline the first two here before going into further detail on the third.

Beowulf we might describe as the just-distant-enough work: written in Anglo-Saxon somewhere in or between the 7th and 10th centuries, it is no longer comprehensible to the ordinary reader, but its heroic narrative and its alliterative framework feel like an originating text for much in English literature from Shakespeare (whose Caliban sometimes seems a direct descendent of Grendel) to Pound (whose manifesto ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’ might well have been called ‘A Few Don’ts by an Anglo-Saxon Bard), and onto the saga-loving W.H. Auden and that great British primitivist, Ted Hughes.

Then he who had harried the hearts of men
with pain and affliction in former times
and had given offence also to God
found that his bodily powers failed him.
…The monster’s whole
body was in pain, a tremendous wound
appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split
and the bone-lappings burst.

Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish, by contrast, is an unambiguous work of translation, from the medieval Irish into an astonishing shape-shifting English in which the depiction of the cursed king, maddened and metamorphosed, resonated with the conflicting nature of identity and to the identities at the base of much conflict in these islands in the 1980s. Its approximate parallel in this was probably Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns (1971), in which King Offa contended with invasive anachronisms in place of rival kings. Both texts look to the past to complicate or, as the jargon of the time had it, to problematise our notions of simplistic identity.

My curse fall on Sweeney
for his great offence.
His smooth spear profaned
my bell’s holiness,

cracked bell hoaring grace
since the first saint rang it –
it will curse you to the trees,
bird-brain among the branches.

To look at Heaney’s Henryson in slightly greater depth, it provides an example of the nearly-familiar which raises some interesting questions as to the point of all such exercises of adaptation.

It is a magisterial reclamation of the late medieval Scottish makar because it both delights and compels us – particularly those of us who, like myself, are Scottish readers – to reappraise our relationship with the literature of what we think of as our distant past. Heaney achieves two things: he brings back to a broad readership (well, broad for poetry) a series of key texts which are not commonly read; and he also places before our attention the matter of how such texts slip from that readership to a narrower band of academics.

Most important, perhaps, is that delight: he conveys in his lithe, close, empathic work something of the cause of his enthusiasm: the subtle mind of Henryson himself, deftly arranging the tales and the tropes of his era, finding a distinctive marriage between the intellect and the senses in a music that still sings from the page, echoed by Heaney’s own Ulster Scots-inflected take.

In order to grasp what is distinctive about Heaney’s Henryson, we need only compare it to his Beowulf: a text definitively placed beyond all but a handful of professors (and often-reluctant undergraduates) by the evolutionary movement of English itself. It simply can’t be read outside that circle.

With Henryson the matter is more complex – his originals are still comprehensible to a degree, but by a different, more fractured constituency of scholars and Scots. A further issue is the way his psychological insights are set within an intricate allegorical system which would seem, on the surface, less easily accessible to the modern world.

To the objection, that, given the relative accessibility of Henryson’s Scots, the exercise hardly seems necessary, Heaney has rehearsed three motives: freeing the text from the purely academic; refreshing the reader by engagement with another sensibility; and, the one that I suspect may have the strongest impetus, the poet’s own sheer pleasure in a species of verse-making ‘by proxy’. As Heaney confesses, the poetry more than spoke to him, it sang to such an extent that he ‘developed a strong inclination to hum along.’

This is the genuine delight of the poet-translator who recognises a meeting not just of minds, but of those inner musics which shape our minds’ utterances, a harmony where before there was only the solo voice. Its fitting representation is the dual text, where stanza accompanies stanza in a stately medieval dance one can almost imagine Henryson joining in.

If we look at a stanza from Henryson’s version of Aesop’s fable of ‘The Cock and the Jasper,’ we can observe the intricacies of this dance. First the Scots:

As damsellis wantoun and insolent
That fane wald play and on the streit be sene,
To swoping of the hous thay tak na tent
Quhat be thairin, swa that the flure be clene;
Jowellis ar tint, as oftymis hes bene sene,
Upon the flure, and swopit furth anone.
Peradventure, sa wes the samin stone.

Then Heaney:

Giddy young things, with their minds on nothing
But swanking in the street and being seen
Have little interest in their besoming.
They birl the brush to make the floor look clean.
So precious items dropped are very often
Swept from the doorstep out into the yard.
Something like that, in this case, had occurred.

Here Heaney is clearly substituting a modern Scottish lexis and alliterative pattern for that present in Henryson: ‘swoping’ and ‘swa’ becomes that birling of the brush, catching up the use of ‘besom’, which in Scots often refers to just such self-possessed young ladies. Perhaps a touch of the otherwise omitted ‘insolent’ also influenced his choice. (We can see there is a tiny difference between cleaning the floor without looking, and only cleaning the floor so that it looks clean, but this is carping.)

There is a much clearer distinction between tones. Henryson repeats himself on the rhyme word ‘sene’, in order to contrast these types of seeing – the young women displaying themselves, and their sloppy behaviour being witnessed and judged. He weighs things up in an even, grave manner – that ‘Peradventure’ in his last line maintains the juridical voice of ‘wantoun and insolent’. Heaney on the other hand divides the stanza into an expressive quatrain, then an explanatory tercet.

In this approach he is echoing that of Dryden, whose term ‘Transfusion’ Heaney cites approvingly in his introduction. This is from Dryden’s ‘Preface’ to the Fables, his late collection of translations from both classical and medieval sources, including Chaucer, so Heaney is also inviting us to study the Preface’s argument regarding his own tranfusions. Dryden addresses those who feel ‘that it is little less than Profanation and Sacrilege to alter [Chaucer’s language]…’ continuing ‘When an ancient Word for its Sound and Significancy deserves to be reviv’d, I have that reasonable Veneration for Antiquity, to restore it. All beyond this is Superstition.’ Language, bluntly, changes; general comprehension diminishes, and, as for those whose learning empowers them to feel otherwise, he says ‘Let them neglect my Version, because they have no need of it.’

Dryden prophesies that he too will become subject to the same need for transfusion. His conclusion appears both irrefutable and modest: ‘…there is something in it like Fatality; that after certain Periods of Time, the Fame and Memory of great Wits should be renew’d.’

Heaney clearly likes the parallel that, as Dryden engaged with Chaucer, so he engages with a Scottish Chaucerian. The most interesting element in this, however, is that there are clear hints Henryson might have enjoyed it too. After all, both in the Testament and his fables there is a dry take on the manner in which a scholarly author of his time engages with his original texts (I loop together here parts of both original and translation):

Quha wait gif all that Chaucer wrait was trew?
Nor I wait nocht gif this narratioun
Be authoresit, or fenyeit…

(Who knows if all that Chaucer wrote was true?

O master Aesop, poet laureate,
God knows you are most welcome here to me
For are you not the very one who wrote
Those fables, which are make-believe, maybe…)

Ar ye not he that all thir fabillis wrate,
Quhilk in effect, suppois thay fenyeit be,
Ar full of prudence and moralitie?

By insisting on being part of an interpretive chain, in which the veracity of the previous link cannot be known, Henryson aligns himself with the trickster figure of his fables, the fox, who in ‘The Fox, The Wolf and the Carter’ fools the carter in this passage which deploys the same key verb, ‘fenyeit’:

With that he made a far, free-ranging detour,
Then stretched out in the middle of the road
Pretending to be dead…

With that he kest ane cumpas far about,
And straucht him doun in midis off the way;
As he wer deid he fenyeit him…

It is this sense of engaging with something slippery and indefinable, in order to preserve something primal and undeniable that Henryson cultivates so carefully, whether it sometimes undercut his gentle moralities or not. It is this which, in turn, Heaney is so intrigued to uncover and re-present. At such moments, the scroll of the story, which carries strange truths rolled up within it regardless of its provenance, is being passed from Henryson to Heaney as it was passed from Aesop or Chaucer to Henryson.

This is perhaps Heaney’s greatest gift to the reader, and therefore of retellings of this sort: to send them back to the original, supported and refreshed, to consider such subtleties of interpretation rather than stumble over misremembered or never-encountered words.

Any gesture which brings to the broadest possible audience, as Heaney’s translation does with such delicacy, one of the most subtle and affecting moments in European literature, can only be welcomed. Right at the end of the Testament, the diseased Cresseid, reduced to begging, meets Troilus again. On the surface Troilus and Cresseid fail to recognise each other, and yet – so characteristically of Henryson – Troilus is, without knowing why, agonisingly reminded of their lost love:

Upon him then she cast up both her eyes
And at a glance it came into his thought
That he some time before had seen her face.
But she was in such state he knew her not;
Yet still into his mind her look had brought
The features and the amorous sweet glancing
Of fair Cresseid, one time his own, his darling.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
This entry was posted in xenochronicity and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s