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Shorter Poems: Introduction

In general, Henryson's shorter poems have not attracted the attention they deserve. "Robene and Makyne" has received some notice by critics because of its delightful and ironic narrative and because it may show French influences on Henryson's work. Similarly, "The Annunciation" and "The Bludy Serk" have been evaluated for their religious themes. "Sum Practysis of Medecyne" has interested critics, but we are still in the process of discovering what the poem means. Its linguistic conundrums and bawdy tone are perhaps unlike anything else Henryson wrote. However, "Ane Prayer for the Pest" also shows Henryson's ability to deal with aurete language and to engage in the kind of word play which marks "Sum Practysis of Medecyne." The variety of the poems is distinctive, and, if indeed they are all Henryson's, they mark the same kind of wide range of poetic voices to be found in The Morall Fabillis.

These poems fall into three groups: love poems, religious verse, and poems on social themes and conventions. Among the love poems, "Robene and Makyne" is the outstanding (and some would argue the only) example. Clearly a treatise on secular love, it is loosely based on the French pastourelle with a number of distinctive elements, including the ironic conclusion. "The Bludy Serk" is also sometimes considered as a love poem, however, with major reservations. While the poem includes the standard romance conventions of a bold knight rescuing a lovely maiden, its intent seems clearly religious. This linking of romance and serious intent in the poem is reaffirmed by Henryson's use of a romantic tale for meditational or religious purposes in Orpheus.

The religious poems are far and away the largest group. Henryson demonstrates his mastery of the debat, the meditational poem, and allegory. His vehicles range from the grisly talking skulls of "Thre Deid Pollis" to the archangel Gabriel in "The Annunciation." "Ane Prayer for the Pest" is a heartfelt cry of anguish, beseeching mercy and relief. Its somber tone may be contrasted with "The Annunciation," the most tranquil and, perhaps, joyful of all of Henryson's poems on religious subjects. The debates between "Deth and Man" and "Yowth and Aige" offer the reader additional insights into Henryson's technique with dialogue. They also demonstrate his ability to treat traditional subjects with skill and creativity. Themes of the poems in this group span the spectrum from purely theological concerns to laments about the decay of humankind.

The poems on social themes and conventions offer delightful satire, thoughtful commentary, and some of Henryson's boldest language, as illustrated by "Sum Practysis of Medecyne." The striking images and unusual mixture of the language of medicine and of the street leave much to be explained. A. M. Kinghorn has suggested that, in addition to more traditional sources, this poem's diction had its origins in students' Latin, perhaps reflecting some of the same spirit of the vagrantes. "The Garmont of Gud Ladeis" is a transitional poem, combining social themes on the constancy of women with religious instruction. Its allegory gives a synopsis of the virtues expected of women in the fifteenth century. Despite its suspect status in the Henryson canon, "The Want of Wyse Men" shares themes found in both "The Prais of Aige" and the fables. In bemoaning the loss of wisdom and integrity and hearkening back to a "golden age," the poem reflects topics common to Henryson's verse.

The major questions about these poems involve Henryson's authorship (which in some instances cannot be verified) and his use of literary traditions. While there is attribution in the manuscripts for Henryson's authorship of most of these works, scribes were often uncertain or made mistakes. The poetry must be submitted to other thematic, stylistic, and historical tests to ensure proper attribution. There are also questions involving Henryson's reliance on literary tradition which relate directly to his creativity. All authors of the Middle Ages acknowledged their debt to previous thought and literatures. Some retold traditional tales verbatim. Others exercised more or less authorial discretion. Henryson follows tradition but not slavishly. He appeals to the values of his audience but also tries to reshape the thinking of that audience, as illustrated not only by The Testament of Cresseid but also "Sum Practysis of Medecyne" and "Ane Prayer for the Pest." Some attention has been given to his striking stylistic control, as in "Sum Practysis of Medecyne" and "Ane Prayer for the Pest." Much more remains to be done. These two poems particularly may be a reflection of the ultimate complexity of Henryson's "artless" style as found in The Morall Fabillis. They demonstrate that far from being a humble schoolmaster who wrote in the folk tradition, Henryson could deal in Latin neologisms and the "anamalit terms celicall" associated with Dunbar. Variety is the hallmark of these poems since they illustrate the full range of Henryson's abilities.

It would be helpful to have a chronology of these works. However, establishing such a chronology seems impossible at this point, as I. W. A. Jamieson has suggested. The poems run the gamut from the simplicity of "Robene and Makyne" to the baroque complexity of "Ane Prayer for the Pest." The poems that we now have are likely only a portion of Henryson's total work, and the extent to which they reflect his voice as opposed to poetic tradition continues to be investigated and debated. See, for instance, Gray, Robert Henryson (1996), p. 6. Each poem has its own interesting enigmas. Other critical issues are outlined in the introduction to each poem in the Notes. The thirteen poems included here have traditionally been accepted as Henryson's by modern editors except Fox, who excludes "The Want of Wyse Men." Fox's arguments against including the work have merit, but, since students will often find this poem included in the Henryson canon, it is printed here for the sake of completeness and future reference.

The poems come largely from manuscript sources, primarily the Bannatyne manuscript. The two sections of the manuscript (the so-called "draft" and the manuscript proper) are differentiated here for the purpose of explaining variant readings. The source of the text for each poem in this edition is indicated in the Notes and comments on special textual matters are included where appropriate.

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Facsimile Editions

The Bannatyne Manuscript. National Library of Scotland Advocates' MS 1.1.6. With an Introduction by Denton Fox and William A. Ringler. London: Scolar Press in Association with the National Library of Scotland, 1980. [Includes both draft MS and main MS.]


Fox, Denton. "Henryson's 'Sum Practysis of Medecyne.' " Studies in Philology 69 (1972), 453-60.

Hallett, Charles A. "Theme and Structure in Henryson's 'The Annunciation.' " Studies in Scottish Literature 10 (1973), 165-74.

Jamieson, I. W. A. "The Minor Poems of Robert Henryson." Studies in Scottish Literature 9 (1971-72), 125-47.

Jones, W. Powell. "A Source for Henryson's Robene and Makyne?" Modern Language Notes 46 (1931), 457-58.

Kinghorn, A. M. "The Minor Poems of Robert Henryson." Studies in Scottish Literature 3 (1965), 30-40.

Moore, Arthur K. "Robene and Makyne." Modern Language Review 43 (1948), 400-03.

Mudge, E. L. "The Fifteenth-Century Critic." College English 5 (1943), 154-55.

Peek, George S. "Robert Henryson's View of Original Sin in 'The Bludy Serk.' " Studies in Scottish Literature 10 (1973), 199-206.

Rossi, Sergio. "L'annunciazione di Robert Henryson." Aevum 29 (1955), 70-81.