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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

§ 7. Henryson’s Shorter Poems

The thirteen shorter poems which have been ascribed to Henryson are varied in kind and verse-form. The majority are of a reflective cast, dealing with such topics as Want of Wise Men, Age, Youth, Death, Hasty Credence and the like—topics which are the delight of the fifteenth century minor muse. There are allegorical poems, such as The Bludy Serk, with the inevitable moralitas, a religious piece on the annunciation, and A Prayer for the Pest. Two of the poems, the pastoral dialogue of Robene and Makyne and the burlesque Sum Practysis of Medecyne, deserve special mention for historical reasons; the former, too, for its individual excellence. The estrif between Robene (Robin) and Makyne (Malkin) develops a sentiment, thus expressed in the girs’s own words—

  • The man that will nocht quhen he may
  • Sall haif nocht quhen he wald—
  • which is probably an echo of the pastourelles. In literary craftsmanship, the poem excels its later and more elaborate analogue The Nut Brown Maid. The older and simpler language, and the ballad timbre (which runs throughout many of Henryson’s minor poems) place Robene and Makynealmost entirely outside Chaucerian influence. This is even more obvious in Sum Practysis of Medecyne; and, for this reason, some have doubted Henryson’s authorship. The divergence is, however, of no evidence against the ascription. Taken with the pieces the same type which are known to be by his contemporaries, it gives us an earlier link in the chain of popular alliterative (or neo-alliterative) verse which resisted the Chaucerian infusion and was destined to exert a strong influence upon later Scottish poetry. These burlesque pieces in Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas and, later, in Lyndsay (in each case a single and disconnected effort) appear to have been of the nature of experiments or exercises in whimsicality, perhaps as a relief from the seriousness or more orderly humour of the muse. The roughness in tone resembles that of the “flytings,” in which it is intentional, and, in many cases, without parallel in English literature. The persistence of this form throughout the century, and in places least expected, may supply an argument for James I’s authorship of Peblis to the Play and Christis Kirk on the Grene. At least, the dissimilarity between these and the Kingis Quair would not, did other reasons not interfere, disprove that they came from the same pen.