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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

X. The Scottish Chaucerians

§ 5. The Morall Fabillis of Esope

Henryson’s longest and, in some ways, his best work is his Morall Fabillis of Esope. The material of the book is drawn from the popular jumble of tales which the Middle Ages had fathered upon the Greek fabulist; much of it can be traced directly to the edition of Anonymus, to Lydgate’s version and to English Reynardian literature as it appeared in Caxton’s dressing. On one sense, therefore, the book is the least original of Henryson’s works; but, in another, and the truer, it may take precedence of even The Testament of Cresseid and Robene and Makyne for the freshness of its treatment, notably in its adaptation of hackneyed fabliaux to contemporary requirements. Nor does it detract from the originality of presentation, the good spirits, and the felicity of expression, to say that here, even more than in his closer imitations of Chaucer, he has learnt the lesson of Chaucer’s outlook on life. Above all, he shows that fineness of literary taste which marks off the southern poet from his contemporaries, and exercised but little influence in the north even before that later period when the rougher popular habit became extravagant.

The Fables, as we know them in the texts of the Charteris print of 1571 and the Harleian MS. of the same year, are thirteen in number, with a general prologue prefixed to the tale of the Cock and the Jewel, and another introducing that of the Lion and the Mouse. They are written in the familiar seven-lined stanza, riming ababbcc, From the general prologue, in which he tells us that the book is “ane maner of translatioun” from Latin, done by request of a nobleman, he justifies the function of the fable

  • to repreue the haill misleuing
  • Of man, be figure of ane uther thing.
  • And again he says,
  • The nuttis schell, thocht it be hard and teuch,
  • Haldis the kirnell, and is delectabill.
  • Sa lyis thair ane doctrine wyse aneuch,
  • And full frute, vnder ane fein[char]eit fabill.
  • And clerkis sayis, it is richt profitabill
  • Amangis eirnist to ming ane mery sport,
  • To licht the spreit, and gar the tyme be schort.
  • As the didactic element is necessarily strong in the fable, little may be said of its presence in Henryson’s work, except, perhaps, that his invariable habit of reserving all reflections for a separate moralitas may be taken as evidence of the importance attached to the lesson. Earlier English fabulists, such as Lydgate, mixed the story and the homily, to the hurt of the former. Henryson’s separation of the two gives the narrative greater directness and a higher artistic value. Indeed, the merit of his Fables is that they can be enjoyed independently and found self-satisfying, because of the contemporary freshness, the unfailing humour, and the style which he weaves into familiar tales. The old story of the sheep in the dog’s skin has never been told in such good spirits; nor is there so much “character” in any earlier or later version of the Town and Country Mouse as there is in The Uponlandis Mous and the Burges Mous.

    In his treatment of nature he retains much of the traditional manner, as in the “processional” picture of the seasons in the tale of the Swallow and the other Birds, but, in the minor touches in the description of his “characters.” he shows an accuracy which can come only from direct and careful observation. His mice, his frog with

  • hir fronsit face,
  • Hir runkillit cheikis, and hir lippis syde,
  • Hir hingand browis, and hir voce sa hace,
  • Hir logerandleggis, and hir harsky hyde,
  • his chanticleer, his little birds nestling in the barn against the storm, even his fox, are true to the life. It is, perhaps, this realism which helps his allegory and makes it so much more tolerable to the modern reader. There is, too, in his sketches more than mere felicity: he discloses, again and again, that intimacy and sympathy with nature’s creatures which we find fully expressed in Burns, and, like his great successor, gently draws his readers to share the sentiment.

    Orpheus and Eurydice, based on Boethius, may be linked with the Fables in type, and in respect of its literary qualities. The moralitas at the close, which is irksome because of its undue length, shows that the conception is similar: the title moralitas fabulae sequitur indicates that the poet was unwilling to let the story speak for itself. This, however, it does, for it is well told, and it contains some lyrical pieces of considerable merit, notably the lament of Orpheus in ten-lined stanzas with the musical burden “Quhar art thow gane, my luf Erudices?” or “My lady Quene and luf, Erudices.” Even in the processional and catalogue passages, in which many poets have lost themselves or gone aground, he steers a free course. When he approaches the verge of pedantic dulness in his account of the musical technicalities which Orpheus learnt as he journeyed amid the rolling spheres, he recovers himself, as Chaucer would have done,

  • Off sik musik to wryte I do bot dote,
  • Tharfor at htis mater a stra I lay.
  • For in my lyf I coud nevir syng a note.