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The greatest of the late medieval Scots makars, Robert Henryson was influenced by their vision of the frailty and pathos of human life, and by the inherited poetic example of Geoffrey Chaucer. Henryson’s finest poem, and one of the rhetorical masterpieces of Scots literature, is the narrative Testament of Cresseid. Set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, the "Testament" completes the story of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, offering a tragic account of its faithless heroine’s rejection by her lover, Diomede, and of her subsequent decline into prostitution and leprosy. Written in Middle Scots, a distinctive northern version of English, the Testament has been translated by Seamus Heaney into a confident but faithful idiom that matches the original verse form and honors the poem’s unique blend of detachment and compassion.
A master of high narrative, Henryson was also a comic master of the verse fable, and his burlesques of human weakness in the guise of animal wisdom are delicately pointed with irony. Seven of the Fables are here sparklingly translated by Heaney, their freshness rendered to the last claw and feather. Together, The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables provide a rich and wide-ranging encounter between two poets across six centuries.
“[Heaney’s translation] reads as a confident and natural extension of Henryson’s work . . . One of the most moving passages—in Henryson’s tongue and in Heaney’s faithful rendering—falls near the end of the tale: Troilus, Cresseid’s former lover who has always loved her, rides by on a horse and barely recognizes her now that her skin is spotted and ringwormed . . . Heaney’s latest book is a testament to endurance—to Heaney still working at his craft, to Henryson’s gathering (if late) audience, to the morals and humor expressed in the fables, to the lasting strength of Troilus and Cresseid, even to the English language itself. In this way The Testament is a comfort, and for a moment it quiets the fear behind the wish of any poet, famous or obscure, that what he makes might not be later known.”—Katherine Eastland, The Weekly Standard
“The Testament of Cresseid is a beautiful, rare work, unique in the history of literature for [the ‘recognition’] scene alone. Heaney has done us all a generous and graceful service.”—Ruth Padel, Financial Times
“The wintry force and appeal of [The Testament] are certainly apparent in [Heaney’s] rendering . . . Read him and you’ll want to experience the original, too.”—Sean O’Brien, The Sunday Times (London)
“The Testament of Cresseid is [Henryson’s] masterpiece, possibly the greatest short narrative poem of the Middle Ages. It mingles human sympathy, moral judgment, ironic awareness and grim humour in equal measure . . . [Heaney’s] translation of The Testament into modern English . . . is a reminder that translation is one of the glories of the English literary tradition.”—Jonathan Bate, The Sunday Telegraph
“Virtuoso moments are common in the book, with Heaney not only giving a justmodern account of Henryson, but offering something distinctive and memorable on its own account.”—Peter McDonald, The Guardian
“[Heaney’s translation of] The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables is typically both masterful and accessible.”—Carol Ann Duffy, The Daily Telegraph
“Nobel laureate Heaney's new versions of very old narrative poems are unlikely to make the same worldwide splash as his Beowulf, but they remain moving and memorable. Misfortune and fortune, repentance and retribution, pity and prudence, and a late-medieval Christian outlook, in which this life prepares us for the next, all pervade the stories told and retold by Henryson (d. 1505), the best poet of the much-maligned generation that followed Geoffrey Chaucer. Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid, set in the Trojan War, describes the last days of the title character's life. Having abandoned the lovelorn warrior Troilus for his heroic rival Diomede, Cresseid finds that Diomede has cast her aside in turn: she curses the god of love, who retaliates by giving her leprosy. She ends her days as a dignified, repentant beggar, almost unrecognized by the man she once loved: 'Still, they assumed from grief so mildly borne/ And yet so cruel, she was of noble kind.' Henryson also translated (or made up) animal stories attributed to Aesop. Heaney's facing-page translations, composed (like Henryson's) in seven- to nine-line rhymed stanzas, give a fluent, often delightful modern cast to all of these pathos-filled tales.”—Publishers Weekly