by WN Herbert

Old and New Makars

November 10, 2009 | by WN Herbert

THIS RE-PRESENTATION of a late medieval Scottish maister Robert Henryson both delights and compels us, particularly as Scottish readers, to a reappraisal of our relationship with what we think of as a literature of our distant past. Sea-mus Heaney has achieved two things: he has brought back to a broad readership a series of key texts not commonly read in these islands. And he has also brought back before our attention the matter of how such texts slip from that readership (assuming they ever achieve it) to a narrower band of enthusiasts. Most importantly, perhaps, he has conveyed in his gutsy, lithe, close, empathic work something of the cause of that enthusiasm: the quiet, subtle mind of Henryson himself, arranging the tales and the tropes of his era with deftness, marrying the intellect and the senses in a mastery of music that still sings from the page, and is now 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: there was a text definitively placed beyond all but a handful of scholars (and often-reluctant undergraduates) by a shift in sensibility, perhaps, but undeniably by the evolutionary movement of English itself. It could not be read outside that circle, although it was a compelling narrative, with a blend of the heroic, the mythic and the horrific which has proven itself amenable recently to cinematic adaptation.

With Henryson the task is more complex – not only is the original still comprehensible to an extent, it is comprehensible by a different, broader and more fractured constituency, less burdened by study for a degree, more motivated by a desire to integrate an extensive understanding of literature into a world-view. Moreover, it is less of a narrative. Its psychological insights are set against an intricate allegoric system which seems, on the surface, less easily adaptable by the modern world.

Roughly speaking, then, the academic specialist aside, there might be two types of reader who still turn to Henryson: one is another type of specialist, the reader, often though hardly exclusively a poet, who wishes to ground his or her awareness if not their practice in the broadest-possible understanding of literature. This reader complements reading widely in contemporary literatures with delving as deeply as possibly into the background to those lit-eratures.

The second type of reader is, to put it plainly, patriotic. Whether their interest attempts to be purely cultural, or is the result of an overtly ideological programme, they read Scottish literature because they think of themselves as Scottish or have the desire to deepen their understanding of what being Scottish might mean. This type of reader may have more issues with Heaney’s task than the first, and one notes that reviews have divided to some extent along these lines, the first group providing more of an account of Henryson’s texts, the second addressing itself more to Heaney’s methods and motives.

To one objection raised by both camps, that the exercise hardly seemed necessary given the relative accessibility of Hen-ryson’s Scots, Heaney has rehearsed Eliot Weinberger’s 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 delight of the poet-translator who not only recognises a meeting of minds, but also hears an inner music, a harmony where before there has only been the solo voice. Its fitting representation is the dual text, where line accompanies line in a version of the stately dances one can imagine Henryson occasionally indulging in.

If we look at a stanza from the fable of ‘The Cock and the Jasper,’ we can observe the intricacies of this dance:

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.

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 more 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 this 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. And we might assume “tint” meant “dropped” as opposed to “lost”. But that seems terribly literal. There is a much clearer distinction between tones. Henryson, although he repeats himself on the rhyme word “sene”, is subtly contrasting these types of seeing, weighing things up in an evenly grave manner – that “Peradventure” in his last line maintains the juridical voice of “wan-toun and insolent”, while Heaney divides the stanza into an expressive quatrain, and an explanatory tercet. Overall, the upgrade is both vigorous and vivid.

In this approach Heaney is echoing that of Dryden, whose term ‘Transfusion,’ in the Preface to the Fables, he cites approvingly, and whose argument regarding his transfusions from Chaucer, he is also, implicitly, inviting us to study. Dryden addresses those who feel “there is a certain Veneration due to [Chaucer’s] old Language; and that it is little less than Profanation and Sacrilege to alter it…”, 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, “Let them neglect my Version, because they have no need of it”. This acceptance of change is of a different order to Pope’s rewritings of Donne, for instance, which give their sense of misplaced superiority away with one word: ‘Versifyd’. Dryden prophesies elsewhere in the Preface 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 finds himself engaging with a Scottish Chaucerian.

The way in which I read Heaney’s translation would tend to start with both texts, to move between them, weighing up the original and delighting in the modern recasting, leaning on it a little where my grasp of the Scots slipped, then, like a swimmer remembering both that he can float and how to move, I’d find myself only reading the Henryson for pages at a time, subvocalising or, to use Heaney’s term, humming along. There is a great delight in the sheer swing of his utterance, such as the mouse’s cry to her sister, “Cry peip, quhairever ye be!”

This is perhaps Heaney’s greatest gift to the Scottish reader, to send them back to the original, supported and refreshed, to reconsider interpretation rather than stumble over misremembered or never-encountered words. Just so he draws our attention, in ‘The Cock and the Jasper,’ to a disjunction between the cockerel’s sober, almost melancholic assessment of the uselessness (to him) of the jasper, and the strict morality Henryson applies to it:

You don’t have corn, and corn is what I covet. Your colour calms the eye and feeds the sight But colour’s never going to feed my gullet. I’m foraging from morning until night
And on the lookout always. But that’s it!

How can I live on looks? It’s food I need,
Not cooked or even hot: I’d eat dry bread.

Here (after the temptation to say ‘breid’ in the last line) we almost hear a prefiguring of Brecht’s “First grub, then ethics” rather than grasp the equation of the jasper with wisdom, and we are more in sympathy with the cock, who “takes a scunner at wise arguments”, than the moralist. But we have been warned from the offing that Aesop “be figure wrait his buke” and we should be alert to the differing levels on which Henryson’s codes may operate – there’s certainly a comic parallel to be drawn between the poet reciting his astronomical learning at the outset of the Testament and a mouse reciting a Latin proverb to a toad. Heaney’s continual returning of his text to Scots performs a canny act of earthing that parallels Gregory Smith’s famous description of Scottish literature, seized upon by MacDiarmid, where the gargoyle is always to be found grinning at the elbow of the saint.

Heaney’s citing of MacDiarmid in his introduction, finding a link between Hen-ryson and the definition in ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’ of a practitioner of mature art, returns me to my initial division of readers. Late in life, MacDiarmid edited an edition of Henryson which, albeit with typical Scotocentric pugnacity, was addressed to the first of my two audiences, and might be seen as a precursor to Heaney’s book.

In so doing, MacDiarmid rejected the position of those (including, perhaps, his earlier selves) who would, in Dryden’s words, “hoord him up, as Misers do their Grandam Gold, only to look on it themselves, and hinder others from making use of it”. But there remain those who, not content to argue there is no need of such a work, would go on to have their cake (or ‘caboik’) and eat it, arguing that, even if there were such a need, surely it should have been addressed by a Scottish writer? In other words, there is still a bellicose, bite-the-hand attitude in Scottish letters that this publication gives us an occasion to address.

Not only is Heaney’s engagement with Henryson an act of creative generosity it would take an extreme stereotype of meanness to reject, it also suggests two highly pertinent questions: just how comprehensible is Scots of whatever period to the Scots? And: just how widely read is Scottish literature (of any period) by the Scots? I would suggest that, setting aside national pride, this volume acts as both primer and example.

The reason no Scottish writer embarked on such a venture was that none of us would admit it might be necessary, let alone timely or essential. But the general mastering of a Scots that would extend beyond the conversational, beyond locality and reminiscence and into our common cultural and literary heritage isn’t a given, nor is it just a matter for the universities or the autodidact, it’s a shared task and, as Heaney’s work suggests, a communal pleasure.

We should admit that all shades of ‘Transfusion’ – versions, adaptations, recontextualisations, rewritings, re-presentings and reconsiderings – are a necessary part of that task, not something we can shirk as in some way innate, and need hardly embark on, but a mission we should embrace as variously as possible. Another lead has already been shown by a couple of recent publications which have taken Burns’s work as the starting point for a series of new commissions directed at a healthy range of audiences, including schoolchildren.

What Heaney’s example shows is that we need a series of books by the broadest selection of contemporary authors (not limited to Scottish authors or authors living in Scotland) which are not merely After Rabbie, but After Fergusson and Ramsay, After Montgomerie and Lindsay, After Douglas and Henryson, to cite a first few; to rephrase MacDiarmid, we need to go back, not only to Burns, but also to Dunbar — and beyond. As Henryson engaged with Chaucer, or Douglas with Virgil, so we need to engage with them.

The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables
Robert Henryson translated by Seamus Heaney
Faber & Faber, £12.99
pp183, ISBN 9780571249282

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