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Henryson, Robert (c. 1420–before 1505) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

century poems learning henryson’s

Although there is much speculation about the life of Robert Henryson, what is known is limited to his residence in Dunfermline, approximate dates, and the esteem in which he was held by immediate successors. Dunbar’s* Lament for the Makaris , printed in 1508, states “In Dunfermelyne he hes done roune/With Maister Robert Henrisoun” (81–82). A holograph gloss of the word “Muse” in Gavin Douglas’* translation of the Aeneid (c. 1522) notes: “And of the ix Musis sum thing in my palys of honour and be Maistir robert hendirson in new orpheus.” In The Testament of the Papyngo (c. 1530) Sir David Lindsay* includes Henryson among eight Scots poets who “Thocht thay be deed, thar libells bene levand,/Quhilk to reheirs makeith redaris to rejoise.” Henryson’s first modern editor, David Laing, thought that the poet had studied abroad before an entry (10 September 1462) places him at Glasgow University “vir Magister Robertus Henrisone in Artibus Licentiatus et in Decretis Bachalarius.” Several printed editions of his poems, beginning in 1570, identify Henryson as a schoolmaster at Dunfermline, and his lyric The Abbay Walk suggests an association with the town’s Benedictine Grammar and Song School. The Chartulary of Dunfermlime (1477–78) includes as witness “Magister Robertus Henrison notarius publicus,” a position there shared with schoolmaster. As with so many medieval writers, knowledge of Henryson comes most surely from his poems, which reveal an extraordinarily educated man, with traditional late-medieval Latin learning and a wide acquaintance with vernacular literatures. Henryson’s works show both the indebtedness to Chaucer, for which he is well known, and the sophistication and internationalism of Scotland, which at the end of the fifteenth century went well beyond provincialism, especially through alliance with France. Of this Renaissance, he is the central literary figure.


Early praise of Henryson indicates a high reputation among Scottish writers during his lifetime, and survival of various manuscripts and printed texts suggests a broad audience. These show greatest interest in The Fables , for which there are two good manuscripts (B. L. Harleian MS 3865 and [Bannatyne] Nat. Library of Scotland 1.1.6), dated 1571 and 1568, and four printed editions, three in Edinburgh and one in London, 1570, 1571, 1621, and 1577, which suggest a middle-class professional audience. Thynne’s inclusion of The Testament of Cresseid in his 1532 edition of Chaucer initiated Henryson’s role as a “Scots Chaucerian,” and this has only just ceased to be the focus of attention, albeit modernizations continue. Henryson was not generally known in the seventeenth century, and the eighteenth-century antiquarians favored Gavin Douglas.* In the nineteenth century Henryson’s poetry became accessible with reprints of separate poems and David Laing’s complete edition in 1865, followed by an edition in the Scottish Text Society in 1906–14. The poet’s reputation in Scotland has always been high, and recent scholarship has established the range of his learning and verbal and metrical skill. But Henryson is Scots, and his narrative poems are too long for anthologies. His traditional and insistent Christian morality— the great theme is the tragedy of sin—and quiet contemplation are antimodern, less compatible interests than Dunbar’s* incisive social protest. Henryson asserts his moral imperatives with humor and compassion, and his learning is offset by a refreshing colloquialism. An engaging storyteller, he relies on tradition even back to Horace, Plato’s Socrates, and Æsop, but his virtuosity and dynamism make familiar tale and allegory compelling. The “Scots Chaucerian” is increasingly recognized as a major medieval poet with a Shakespearean range of tragedy and comedy, praised for a plain style and the humanist learning to make him the first of the University Wits.

Henslowe, Philip (155?–1616) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION [next] [back] Henry, William

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