1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Henryson, Robert

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HENRYSON, ROBERT (c. 1425–c. 1500), Scottish poet, was born about 1425. It has been surmised that he was connected with the family of Henderson of Fordell, but of this there is no evidence. He is described, on the title-page of the 1570 edition of his Fables, as “scholemaister of Dunfermeling,” probably of the grammar-school of the Benedictine Abbey there. There is no record of his having studied at St Andrews, the only Scottish university at this time; but in 1462 a “Master Robert Henryson” is named among those incorporated in the recently founded university of Glasgow. It is therefore likely that his first studies were completed abroad, at Paris or Louvain. He would appear to have been in lower orders, if, in addition to being master of the grammar-school, he is the notary Robert Henryson who subscribes certain deeds in 1478. As Dunbar (q.v.) refers to him as deceased in his Lament for the Makaris, his death may be dated about 1500.

Efforts have been made to draw up a chronology of his poems; but every scheme of this kind, is, in a stronger sense than in the case of Dunbar, mere guess-work. There are no biographical or bibliographical facts to guide us, and the “internal evidence” is inconclusive.

Henryson’s longest, and in many respects his most original and effective work, is his Morall Fabillis of Esope, a collection of thirteen fables, chiefly based on the versions of Anonymus, Lydgate and Caxton. The outstanding merit of the work is its freshness of treatment. The old themes are retold with such vivacity, such fresh lights on human character, and with so much local “atmosphere,” that they deserve the credit of original productions. They are certainly unrivalled in English fabulistic literature. The earliest available texts are the Charteris text printed by Lekpreuik in Edinburgh in 1570 and the Harleian MS. No. 3865 in the British Museum.

In the Testament of Cresseid Henryson supplements Chaucer’s tale of Troilus with the story of the tragedy of Cresseid. Here again his literary craftsmanship saves him from the disaster which must have overcome another poet in undertaking to continue the part of the story which Chaucer had intentionally left untold. The description of Cresseid’s leprosy, of her meeting with Troilus, of his sorrow and charity, and of her death, give the poem a high place in writings of this genre.

The poem entitled Orpheus and Eurydice, which is drawn from Boethius, contains some good passages, especially the lyrical lament of Orpheus, with the refrains “Quhar art thow gane, my luf Erudices?” and “My lady quene and luf, Erudices.” It is followed by a long moralitas, in the manner of the Fables.

Thirteen shorter poems have been ascribed to Henryson. Of these the pastoral dialogue “Robene and Makyne,” perhaps the best known of his work, is the most successful. Its model may perhaps be found in the pastourelles, but it stands safely on its own merits. Unlike most of the minor poems it is independent of Chaucerian tradition. The other pieces deal with the conventional 15th-century topics: Age, Death, Hasty Credence, Want of Wise Men and the like. The verses entitled “Sum Practysis of Medecyne,” in which some have failed to see Henryson’s hand, is an example of that boisterous alliterative burlesque which is represented by a single specimen in the work of the greatest makers, Dunbar, Douglas and Lyndsay. For this reason, if not for others, the difference of its manner is no argument against its authenticity.

The MS. authorities for the text are the Asloan, Bannatyne, Maitland Folio, Makculloch, Gray and Riddell. Chepman and Myllar’s Prints (1508) have preserved two of the minor poems and a fragment of Orpheus and Eurydice. The first complete edition was prepared by David Laing (1 vol., Edinburgh, 1865). A more exhaustive edition in three volumes, containing all the texts, was undertaken by the Scottish Text Society (ed. G. Gregory Smith), the first volume of the text (vol. ii. of the work) appearing in 1907. For a critical account of Henryson, see Irving’s History of Scottish Poetry, Henderson’s Vernacular Scottish Literature, Gregory Smith’s Transition Period, J. H. Millar’s Literary History of Scotland, and the second volume of the Cambridge History of English Literature (1908).  (G. G. S.)