The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables by Robert Henryson (trans. Seamus Heaney)


The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables

Robert Henryson

Translated by Seamus Heaney

Faber, Hardback, 208pp, ISBN 9780571249282, Price: £12.99

Claire Pascolini-Campbell

In this, his most recent work, Nobel prize-winning poet and Beowulf translator Seamus Heaney leaves the 8th century behind and embarks upon a translation of 15th century Robert Henryson’s ‘The Testament of Cresseid’ and ‘Seven Fables’. The material of the texts in question (or at least the characters that feature in them) will be known to many readers: the story of Cresseid through Boccacio, Chaucer or Shakespeare’s adaptations; the fables through Aesop or, more likely, through translations of the original material which have filtered down over the centuries. In choosing to translate Henryson, Heaney is entering into dialogue with a rich history of translation, elaboration and variation, actions that were integral to the task of literary ‘creation’ throughout the medieval period.

Heaney himself elaborates on the role of the poet-translator in the introduction to the volume and points to the theories of Eliot Weinberger to explain the motives behind his translation. Weinberger establishes three purposes for translation:

1) the advocacy of the work in question

2) refreshment from a different speech and culture

3) to satisfy the pleasure of writing by proxy.

Throughout the narrative we can see Heaney exploiting all three of these aims as he translates the text into contemporary discourse, whilst retaining the rhythmic playfulness of the fables and the classical themes of ‘The Testament’. That said, because of the differences in subject between the fables and the Cresseid poem, Heaney’s vision as translator/creator at times appears inconsistent. While Henryson’s ‘rhyme royal’ (a style that the Scottish poet had borrowed from Chaucer) is mirrored throughout, Heaney is freer (and, indeed, more playful) with the rhythm and with the rhyming sounds in his interpretations of the fables (exemplified through use of inversion as I will later to go on to discuss).

In ‘The Testament of Cresseid’ Heaney is at pains to translate the traditional motifs that prop up Henryson’s poem and, in so doing, gives the modern reader a taste of some of the recurrent themes of medieval poetry. For instance, the text opens with the regrets of the old lover (in similar vein to John Gower’s Confessio Amantis: ‘Though love is hot, yet in an older man/ It kindles not so as in the young’. An invocation to Chaucer, ‘the great and the glorious’, follows; Heaney firmly situates the source text in the canon of medieval poetry. Through Heaney, the modern reader will also encounter the fatalistic image of Venus, a blind goddess reminiscent of Fate and the tradition of the Danse Macabre when Cresseid laments the loss of her beauty. Cresseid’s lament is easily the most lyrical section of both the Henryson and the Heaney poems; as Henryson exploits some of the most evocative literary genres, and Heaney follows suit. Henryson’s ubi sunt is beautifully mirrored by Heaney as his Cresseid laments: “Where is your chamber’s cushioned chair and screen?”, “Where is your garden full of herb and spray?”. In fact, in Heaney’s poem the ubi sunt is emphasized more than in the original through his insertion of an additional ‘where’ into his translation, turning Henryson’s descriptive sentence into a contemplative one: ‘Where are the cups of gold and silver sheen?” In so doing, Heaney delicately highlights another medieval literary paradigm: the transience of material things.

Heaney likewise departs from the original in omitting the word ‘mischance’. This omission is one of the few examples of something being ‘lost’ in translation. In doing so Heaney deprives the text of the resonances of the Morte D’Arthur tradition which would have been evident to readers of Henryson’s poem. Indeed, in using the particular term ‘mischance’, the Scottish poet sought to describe a calculated misfortune, not random ill-fate: ‘mischance’ implies a state of being that is wholly determined by one’s own evil deeds and distance from God (or gods, in Cresseid’s case).

Also, Heaney does not always retain the sound and the rhythm of the original poem. Henryson’s woe-filled alliterations (“Wrappit in wo, ane wretch ful wil of wane”) are liberally translated as “Swaddled in sadness, wretched and undone”.

As peviously stated, in the fables the departure from the original rhythm is more pronounced and Heaney often inverts the rhythm of the Henryson poem. For instance, the first sentence of the prologue (“Esope, myn author, makis mentioun”) becomes “Aesop tells a tale-Aesop my author”. This is a device that Heaney employs throughout his version of the fables, no doubt because the material of the fables themselves allows for this freedom and word-play. The greater freedom of expression afforded by the modern literary canon likewise allows Heaney to smoothe-out certain ‘clunky’ sentences. For instance “Contending quha suld have the victory” becomes, in Heaney’s version, “All these things in contention, sweetly vying”. The smoothness of Heaney’s lyrics is evident throughout the fables and the majority of the changes he makes to the originals seem purely to satisfy this desire for musicality. Heaney’s translation of the fables is less to do with the narrative and more to do with readjusting Henryson’s lyrics so as to make them accessible to a modern ear.

Henryson’s original text is therefore used as both a springboard for creation and as an authority or, to borrow from medieval translation rhetoric, an auctoritas. Heaney creates a volume of new poetry in his target language, but likewise succeeds in carrying across the meaning and the feeling of the original texts, effectively reviving Henryson’s work in front of a new cultural audience.

In a clever instance of mise en ab?me, Heaney shrugs off this achievement through a mock apology for the imperfect nature of his translation as he states: “I humbly pray your reverence/That if you find here through my negligence/Anything much shortened-or protracted-/By your good will and good grace you’ll correct it”. In so doing, he gives new meaning to Henryson’s phrase as, the Scottish poet’s own mock apology (“Thairfor meikklie I pray your reverence/ Gif ye find ocht that throw my negligence/Be deminute, or yit superfluous,/ Correct it at your willis gratious”) refers to the delicate task of translating from Latin into the vernacular, and upsetting the hierarchy of medieval languages. In Heaney’s case, the ‘apology’ can be read as an admonision of the open-ended nature of translation and of the fact that the role of the translator/creator is never uniform. Nonetheless, while Heaney is right to point out that translations vary exceedingly depending on the stratagems and the goals of the translator, most readers will likely find this particular translation to be a generous and insightful rendering of Henryson’s work.

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