The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993

By Graham Caie; Roderick J. Lyall et al. | Go to book overview

R. D. S. JACK


1. Henryson and the Art of Precise Allegorical
Argument

It is nice to be asked to give a keynote address. It is even nicer to be asked to give it in a Town and Gown context. For me personally, it is nicest of all to be asked to do so through a return to my alma mater. It is less nice to have to write it; not only for the obvious reasons but because it seems at first sight impossible to meet the implied requirements nicely in another sense – that is exactly, with precision. To open interestingly, yet harmoniously; to hold the attention of all without alienating any is a weighty remit.

To hit an effective key-note for a large body of colleagues, you have first to resolve a Catch 22 situation. If you say something which you believe is new and exciting, many of that audience will still find the old vision preferable. For them, you will have hit a discordant note. Instead, resort to truisms and you will no doubt carry everyone with you. They will unanimously agree that everyone’s valuable time has been well and truly wasted. Here, you will have opened proceedings on a flat note. To hit a minor key for Town as well as Gown intensifies the dilemma. Is your topic to be related to the Conference theme within the discipline or from that discipline outwards to a world gasping to hear the latest word from the Ivory Tower? Whichever tune you select, for one group you may be playing in the wrong key.

Let me be more specific. I have been given a Conference theme – ‘Scotland and its connections with Europe’ – to be related to a given body of work – ‘Early Scottish Literature.’ The result has to be directed towards an audience, if not of infinite variety, of more than enough contradictions in individuality to be going on with. In addition, my broad title – Henryson and Allegory—appears to ignore Town in its ‘literariness’ and address Gown through a topic, whose relevance to Europe is obscure.

In fact, the modes of argument favoured in the Middle Ages and well exemplified by Maister Henrysoun, rescue me from the apparent dilemma. An old and different perspective finds harmony in comprehensiveness, where the modern mind sees discordance in opposition. An older disciplinary definition of imaginative literature’s function and proper referential focus provides exactness in theory for precision in practice.

In a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century University, I should at this point be expected to do at least four things: define, within the theme, my chosen thematic focus or Sententia; explain why I chose it; outline my proposed means of developing it; precisely state my own perspective. In doing this, I shall try primarily to persuade representatives of town and industry that medieval modes of thought may still be of value to them.

-1-

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The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993
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