Situational Poetics in Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid

Situational Poetics in Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid

By Nickolas A. Haydock

Cambria Press, 2010
ISBN: 9781604977660

C. David Benson called Robert Henryson (who passed away c. 1505) the “last medieval poet.” He is widely deemed the most accomplished poet writing in the British Isles between the death of Chaucer and the flowering of English poetry in the early-modern period. His major works—The Moral Fables, Orpheus and Eurydice, and The Testament of Cresseid—address classical and Chaucerian traditions critically and from a recognizably Scottish perspective. The last of these poems, The Testament of Cresseid, has proven one of the most controversial and hotly contested for modern readers, provoked by its volatile mixture of censure and sympathy.

Henryson’s Testament (written in Middle Scots) is not only the finest single work by a “Chaucerian” but it also represents the first tragedy originally written in English based on invented rather than inherited materials. His alternate ending to the Troilus and Criseyde was subsequently included directly after Chaucer’s classical romance in all editions of the English poet from 1532 until the early eighteenth century. This situation influenced how Chaucer’s most celebrated poem would be understood throughout the early-modern period. Indeed, the conjuncture of the Troilus and the Testament in black letter prints of Chaucer creates a situation in which one text influences the reception of another to a degree unprecedented in English literature. Clear evidence of such influence can be seen in Shakespeare’s adaptation of Chaucer in Troilus and Cressida. But Henryson also conceived his Testament as the culmination of an authorial paradigm, forming, with The Moral Fables and Orpheus and Eurydice, a threefold poetic corpus based on the canonical model of the Virgilian poetic career.

Borrowing a term from Mary Louise Pratt, this book traces the itineraries of The Testament of Cresseidas an “intercultural text” through a number of poetic, nationalist, and imperialist conjunctures. Pratt calls this phenomenon “transculturation,” a term that can be utilized to characterize the way the Testament crosses and reaffirms cultural borders. Henryson’s intercultural response to the Troilus and Criseyde reflects the ambivalence of real and internalized borderlands to a remarkable degree. Homi Bhabha has likewise attempted to account for the space of “partial culture,” that is, “the contaminated yet connective tissue between cultures—at once the impossibility of culture’s containedness and the boundary between.” For Bhabha, “the translation of cultures, whether assimilative or agonistic, is a complex act that generates borderline affects and identifications, ‘peculiar types of culture-sympathy and culture-clash,’” which he calls an “unhomely space and time.” The unheimlich character of Henryson’s supplement is an important focus of Situational Poetics but so too are the multiple articulations of the kind of work that, as Bhabha suggests, “gives narrative form to minority positions; the outside of the inside, the part in the whole.” The approach of this book is rooted in contemporary thought about place and situatedness as well as the dislocations and “double consciousness” of what Deleuze and Guattari call a “minor literature” bordering a major one.

The past three decades have seen an explosion of work on the Chaucerian tradition, though recent work on the period between Chaucer and the English Renaissance has tended to compartmentalize the study of English and Scottish Chaucerians in rather exclusive terms —misleadingly, as is demonstrated in this book. Seth Lerer’s influential Chaucer and His Readers does not even mention the Scottish makers Henryson or Douglas, and much later work has followed suit. This book opposes that trend and argues for the centrality of Henryson’s supplement to Chaucer in accounts of English literary history. Work on the Middle Scots poets and on Henryson in particular has also contributed to this separation, turning from the approach implied in the old term, “Scottish Chaucerians,” toward nation-based studies. Yet however welcome and overdue such studies, they have tended to obscure what Denton Fox has called the “coherence” of Henryson’s work, its place in a tradition of classicism in medieval British literature which began with Chaucer.

This is the first full-length study of Henryson to appear in nearly a generation. The afterlife of the Testament from early-modern prints and Sir Francis Kinaston’s Latin translation down through Seamus Heaney’s modern rendering and a contemporary mural illustrating the poem in Dunfermline, Scotland are surveyed. The Scottish poet’s place in the classical tradition receives an extensive revaluation. His ideas of authorship and his understanding of the tragic genre receive substantial treatment, challenging received notions in significant and provocative ways. Henryson composes a distinctive bricolage in reconstructing tragic poetics from a wealth of sources, including Boethius and Isidore, Boccaccio and Lydgate, and Averroës’ Middle Commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics. The inquisitional style in Henryson’s punishment of Chaucer’s wayward heroine is also discussed within the context of what R. I. Moore has called the “persecuting society” of the late middle ages and Rene Girard’s theory of the scapegoat—a discussion that relates Cresseid’s tragedy to the ritual sacrifice of women depicted in medieval Troy histories such as Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae. The association between Chaucer’s work and Henryson’s alternate ending is great analyzed in detail, employing the Lacanian concepts of lack and anamorphosis. While the final chapter details how this anamorphic supplement is deployed by Shakespeare in his exploration of “bifold authority.”

This book will be important for collections on Scotland, late medieval literature, literary history, the Chaucerian tradition, literary translation, Virgilianism and the classical tradition, Shakespeare, tragedy, medievalism, as well as feminist, psychoanalytical and anthropological approaches to literature.

Review by R. James Goldstein: “Readers may well be excused for wondering how it is possible to write such a long book about a poem of only 616 lines. The short answer is that although the fifteenth-century Scottish writer’s masterpiece remains the constant point of reference in this provocative and erudite study, Nickolas A. Haydock’s book is in many ways a postmodern exercise in decentering Henryson’s short masterpiece.” – click here to read the full review

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