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

MATTHEW P. McDIARMID


22. Robert Henryson on Man and the Thing
Present

My previous writings on Henryson have not addressed themselves simply and directly enough to what Matthew Arnold would have called his criticism of life. Henryson sees the common condition of man as one of subjection to the ‘thing present’, his phrase in that great poem, ‘The Preiching of the Swallow’ (1865).1 By this he means betrayal of the forward-looking mind and spirit by the self that sees only present need, real or assumed, present convenience, present desire, a self that if it looks where mind and spirit point, too seldom the case, turns away.

It is a criticism that, as Henryson’s poems illustrate, can have a comic, a pathetic, a tragic, expression, and is his dominant theme. Its relevance to our present-day society should be apparent. For us present needs are polluting motor cars and polluting factory chimneys. It was as far back as 1946 that my brotherin-law, the physicist Stanislas Broderick, today famous for his Theory of Probability, informed me that the heating of the planet may now be irreversible. In the previous year I had returned from a war in which the atomic bomb, now outmoded by the nuclear missile, and the terrible potential of that, a present for our grandchildren, was the present need.

Henryson goes straight to his theme in the first of his fables. A careless housemaid sweeps a ‘jasp’, a jewel, into the barnyard where the cock busily pecks for grain. In what follows we must not make the mistake of dismissing the cock as altogether a fool. Henryson calls him that, but this refers to his ultimate choice. He is a person, as intelligent as most of us. He recognises the jewel for what it is, the Word of God, and sadly rejects it. His livelihood, the corn, comes first. Indeed I find myself thinking of that excellent young man with all the virtues, who could not pass Christ’s final test of giving up his great possessions, so went off sadly, watched still more sadly by Christ. Henryson’s despair over the cock’s all too human choice, comes out in the abrupt ending of his Moralitas, ‘Ga seik the jasp quha will, for thair it lay.’

In the following tale of the two sisters, country mouse and town mouse, sympathy naturally goes to the former fleeing from dangerous luxury to ‘Blythnes of hart with small possessioun’, and yet some pity might be kept for the town mouse, the inevitable victim of her luxurious present, for ‘the cat cumis and to the mous has ee’, a sinister line that suggests both death and the

1 The text quoted here is that of Charles Elliott, Clarendon Press (Oxford, 1974). For a more religious interpretation of The Morall Fabillis than my own see Marianne Powell, Fabula Docet (Odense University Press, 1983).

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