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THE number of poems by Robert Henryson that have been preserved, and the early period at which they were committed to print, make it a matter of surprise and regret that so little is known of their author; and even the little that is known is so vague as to afford a I very indefinite conception of the man. One of his poems, "The Bludy Sark," is, on very good grounds, supposed by Dr David Laing to have been printed at Utrecht in 1474; while "Orpheus and Eurydice" forms part of the first product of the Scottish press, the unique collection of Chepman and Myllar, in 1508. Dr Laing agrees with Sibbald in supposing him to have been born about 1425, but has not been able to say where, nor of what family; indeed, his researches on this last point have disproved the probability of there being any foundation of truth in a tradition, noticed by previous biographers, making him the progenitor of the Henrysons or Hendersons of Fordell,near Dunfermline. The records of neither of the universities of Scotland existing during his time, those of St Andrews and Glasgow, show him to have completed his studies at home; and as he is known to have acted as a notary, from the fact of his having in that capacity witnessed several charters still existing, it is concluded that he must have completed his education, and obtained his degree, at some foreign university. The fact of his having resided in Dunfermline is attested by
the charters; but the statement of his being a schoolmaster, first recorded in the title page of his "Fables," 1570, has not been traced to any more reliable source; yet there is no reason to doubt its correctness, although it is not quite clear whether the office was a secular or a clerical one.
The grammar school of Dunfermline is known to have been situated within the precincts of the abbey, and the appointment of schoolmaster, and the superintendence of the school, were in the jurisdiction of the abbots. But the evidence of his having been a man of academical culture is supplied by the fact, first traced by Dr Laing, of his having been admitted a member of the recently founded university of Glasgow, on September 10, 1462, as "the venerable Master Robert Henryson, Licentiate in Arts, and Bachelor in Degrees." Dr Laing supposes his object in joining the university may have been to enable him to deliver lectures in law; and from the use of the term "venerable," he infers that he must have been somewhat advanced in life—an inference which would justify the placing of his birth somewhat earlier than 1425. In the three deeds granted by the Abbot of Dunfermline, to which he is a witness, his name is written Magister Robertus Henrison, notarius publicus; and the fact that few or none but the clergy at that time were sufficiently acquainted with the civil and canon law to act in the capacity of
notary public, the authority for which up to 1469 was held of the Pope, affords a presumption of his having been in orders, or at least educated for the church. The existence of a preaching vein in the moral of the Fables, and some other of his poems, very character. istic of the clerical cast of mind, also inclines to the same conclusion.
There is no evidence of his ever having been married, or of his having left any descendants; and there is nothing| in his writings which bears upon the question. It has been conjectured that the king's advocate, in the time of James IV., was a son of the poet, but that supposition rests on the already disposed-of conjecture that he was the founder of the Hendersons of Fordell, for the king's advocate was a member of that family, and the first of the name who became proprietor of Fordell. Some others of the name claim to be descendants of the poet or his family; but Dr Laing, who has exhausted the subject, finds no reliable evidence connecting him with any of them.
The date of his death, like that of his birth, has not been ascertained. He is referred to in Dunbar's "Lament," which was written about the beginning of the sixteenth century, in the following couplet :
"In Dunfermline he hes done roun
Gud Maister Robert Henrisoun." From the use of the term "Good," Dr Laing infers that Henryson was but recently dead, and that Dunbar and he were probably intimate.
Sir Francis Kynaston, in the reign of Charles II., published a Latin version
of Chaucer's "Troilus and Cresseid," and added Henryson's "Testament of Cresseid," stating, on the authority of Sir Thomas Erskine, afterwards Earl of Kellie, "and divers aged scholars of the Scottish nation, that it was made and written by one Mr Robert Henderson, sometime cheife Schole Master in Dunfermling ;" and adding that he died very aged of a diarrhoea or flux. He then relates a story illustrative of Henryson's sarcastic humour, which, in terms more forcible than polite, marks his contempt of the wretched superstitions which prevailed in his time.
The tradition, that he attained to a good old age, appears to be based upon the fact of his having treated of subjects appropriate to that period of life; and taking all the circumstances into account, it is not improbable. Dr Laing, with that quiet undemonstrative delicacy for which he manifests his regard for his subject, remarks that, "Whatever the year was in which his gentle spirit passed away, we need not doubt that his mortal remains found a resting-place within the precincts of the abbey of Dunfermline.'
There is little doubt that Henryson's character, like that of all true and natural poets, may be best read in his poems. That he studied the art of poetry in the works of his two greatest predecessors, Chaucer and James I., is very obvious. His "Testament of Cresseid," which is justly considered his greatest, if not his most successful work, shows most of the manner of his masters, and so much does it resemble Chaucer's poem, of which it forms the conclusion,
that in all the earlier editions of that poet it has been given as his work. Mr Goodwin, in his Life of Chaucer, says of it that it "has a degree of merit calculated to make us regret that it is not a performance standing by itself, instead of thus serving merely as an appendage to the work of another." But the pieces most characteristic of Henryson's genius are his "Fables" and the pastoral of "Robene and Makyn," and it is in these that we discover most of the man -his quiet pawky humour, his homely philosophy, and his true observation of nature in all her aspects. It is in these that his verse flows on with that easy simple grace so devoid of all trace of effort, so definite and true, and so comprehensive as to present in a few lines a picture which imparts to the mind a vivid impression of the scene described. Perhaps no one has summed up his characteristic excellencies better than Professor Aytoun, who remarks, in his collection of the Ballads of Scotland, that, "of the works of this venerable man, it is difficult, when we consider the period in which they were written, to speak in terms of too warm encomium. In strength and even in sublimity of painting, in pathos and sweetness, in the variety and beauty of his pictures of natural scenery, in the vein of quiet and playful humour which runs through many of his pieces, and that fine natural taste which, rejecting the faults of his age, has dared to think for himself, he is altogether excellent." Mr Tytler is equally hearty in his appreciation; but as we give an ample selection of his most esteemed pieces, it is unnecessary to add more than Dr Irving's observation,
commending a process which we apply with all the care of which we are capable, that "his verses, if divested of their uncouth orthography, might often be mistaken for those of some poet of the present day."
The chief collections in which Henryson's poems have been preserved, are the Asloan MS., a collection of pieces in prose and verse, transcribed in 1515 by John Asloan, and now or lately in the possession of the Auchinleck family; the well known Bannatyne and Maitland MSS.; a manuscript in the Harleian Collection in the British Museum; and the Makculloch MS., in Dr Laing's possession. To these may be added the first printed specimen of Scottish typography, the Collection of Chepman and Myllar, 1508. Numerous editions, all more or less incomplete, had appeared of his poems previous to Dr Laing's having undertaken the production of his edition of 1865, which is the first complete collection, and leaves no excuse for any further editing, unless the chapter of accidents turns up some of those poems of his which have been abstracted from the Asloan MS.